Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mini Review:
21 (2008)
Directed by: Robert Luketic
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, Lawrence Fishburne, and Kate Bosworth

I enjoyed this! It reminded me of the 1995 classic, 'Hackers'-a movie that revels in the brain power of a group of youngsters up against a supposedly unbeatable system. In this one, the youngsters are students of MIT who are invited by an ambitious teacher to accompany him on weekend trips to Vegas where they make a 'killing' counting cards. The system they use is supposedly 'fullproof' and indeed things go well for a while, especially after the addition of Ben Campbell (Sturgess), an exceptional student on a mission to earn his Harvard Med tuition before graduation. The teacher is played superbly by Spacey, and I have to say that I'm surpised he didnt get more critical acclaim for this part. It's the best thing I've seen him in since American Beauty. He really shines during a brief scene at the end where he dons a cowboy hat and southern accent in order to make one last score at the Blackjack tables. Sturgess is a credible lead and will obviously be a star, mainly due to his deft ability to appear awkwardly brilliant and loveable. Fishburne is always memorable and is no less so here, where he portrays an unethical casino security guard while the rest of the cast is on point, but given little to do. The story is engaging throughout and, much like Hackers, peaks at the point of the 'big score'. Also like Hackers, the characters are what really add an edge to the otherwise familiar 'david vs goliath' plot line. Vegas never looked more beautiful and the game of Blackjack takes on an entirely new appeal...a worthy piece of entertainment.

My rating: 7/10

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Directed by: Gabriele Moccino
Starring: Will Smith and Jaden Smith

Okay so I'll admit that the story of a single father making a life for he and his five year old son was instantly appealing for me. Jaden Smith's precious little face really seemed to shine in those commercials and there were lots of snips of Will Smith crying. It looked like a moving drama that I would enjoy. And I'll even go a step further and admit that when the final credits rolled, I was wiping my eyes a little. But upon reflection, I am heartily annoyed by this movie.

The story follows Chris Garder, an intelligent young husband and father who has made some poor business choices in his life. His wife is forced to work double shifts to pay for some of these mistakes (principally that of a 'sure' business deal involving medical equipment sales) and the couples' five year old son must stay in day care while they try to make ends meet. After a chance meeting w/ a stock broker, Chris realizes that he would do well as a broker himself and decides to vie for a position as an intern w/ a top brokerage firm in the area. No sooner is Chris accepted for the unpaid internship than his wife decides to leave he and his son behind and head for greener pastures. Saddled w/ the intense responsibilities of his unpaid job as well as trying to sell what is left of the medical equipment, Chris struggles mightily as he tries to provide the basic necessities for he and his son amidst great odds.

First of all, may I just say that this movie is not aptly titled. It should be called 'The Pursuit of Wealth' or 'The Pursuit of Self-Worth' since, in essence, that's REALLY what it's about. The idea that happinesss is somehow connected w/ monetary success does not resonate with me and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. When father and son spend the night on a bathroom floor due to having been evicted from their motel room, I know I could not have been the only one to wonder WHERE this man's friends were? Did he spend so much time working that he didnt have any? But no, because his whole job before the internship was supposedly attempting to sell 'bone density' machines and therefore he should have had plenty of free time to pal around w/ his cronies. What about his family? Surely there was someone to take them in. In addition, I couldnt help but be wholly disturbed by the fact that this man would rather drag his son along after him every day in a race to the local 'mission' in order to get his nightly bed than to abandon this crapshoot of a job opportunity and get a real job that paid regularly enough to keep a roof over their heads. Sheesh. What if he HADNT gotten the job w/ the brokerage firm (a one in 20 shot, no less)? Six months of sleeping in roach motels and running after buses would have been for naught. And we get the distinct feeling that this guy would probably have wallowed in self pity for quite some time afterwards. Wanting to make a success of oneself is one thing...doing so at all costs is another. And I certainly can't support the latter. After all, success is relative. While I suppose some people may feel that getting to the top of the carreer ladder qualifies as success, I happen to feel that keeping one's family clothed and fed (both physically and spiritually) is far more important and if one has to be a janitor to make that happen, the success is no less grand. So when our hero Chris arrives at his motel room one night only to find that he has been evicted , I can't say I felt all that differently than five year old Christopher did when he threw that big tantrum. After all, WHY did it have to happen? The truth is, it didnt.

In spite of all those factors, I didnt hate the movie. Will Smith is one heck of an actor and he plays this part well. It is a believeable struggle he has and you feel the redemption he feels at its conclusion (I'm not going to put spoiler warnings here because, c'mon, did you REALLY think he wasnt going to get the job?). Jaden Smith is a precocious little thing with a special gift for connecting with the audience. And the direction was quality stuff, with only a few scenes seemingly tacked on for effect. I guess the eighties backdrop was necessary since the movie is based on a true story but it would have been just as effective if it were pushed forward to modern day. People certainly seem to identify w/ this type of thing and ladies love to reach for their hankies when there is a child involved in any kind of life struggle.

I just find it really frustrating that this movie was touted as a tale of conviction in the face of adversity when the adversity was, for the most part, self inflicted.

My rating: 5/10 (gotta give Smith a nod for his acting)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mini Review:

The story of a naval captain with insubordination issues is naturally an appealing one, since it involves 'captive' persons under obvious stress. This movie handles the subject in an interesting way, telling the tale principally from the perspective of the crew.

When the 'Caine' is put under the authority of a new captain, Commander Francis Queeg (impeccably portrayed by Bogart in what is probably his best performance), all involved are initially pleased. But their pleasure quickly turns to dismay when the new captain proves to me far more demanding and meticulous than they anticipated. What is at first thought to be simply unfairness and strict adherence to rules soon becomes outright paranoia, in the opinion of the crew. Influenced by his shipmates, 2nd in command Lt Maryk (Van Johnson) takes it upon himself to commandeer the ship when Queeg's seemingly unbalanced orders during a dangerous storm at sea threaten the lives of the men. The story soon turns from exciting maritime adventure to courtroom drama as the instigators of the mutiny must face the consequences of their actions.

Bogart is brilliant in this role, which requires that he not only show salty stoicism but also manic frustration. His final scenes are especially memorable. As for the rest of the case, Jose Ferrer provides a standout performance as Lt Greenwald, a man with a tortured conscience. The direction is well done, though I felt that the film had difficulty deciding at times whether it wanted to be a comedy or a drama. The look of the thing will remind you of other films of the era (think Father Goose, Mr Roberts, or even South Pacific)-the seamen taking on that standard 1950's appearance of so many buttered rolls. Attractive, shiny, and shrowded in clean blue cotton, they don't necessarily bring the realism of their life at sea home to the viewer. That's fine with me since I don't necessarily go into these films for a true to life experience. It's a satisfying movie with one very important performance.

My rating: 8/10